Based on the graphic novel of the same name, My Friend Dahmer tells the story of a troubled teenager (Ross Lynch) in suburban Ohio who's befriended by an aspiring artist (Alex Wolff) who uses him in a series of pranks.
It's a hard thing to square My Friend Dahmer with the reality of where the character - that is, Jeffrey Dahmer - eventually ended up. Throughout the hundred-odd minutes of the film's runtime, you get a sense that there is something twisted and dangerous lurking beneath the surface of the character, but the surrounding aspects of him is so trivial and quaint that you're wondering how exactly is that this entire film came into being. It's like airdropping in one of the inmates from Netflix's Mindhunter into a mumblecore teen drama - but maybe that's exactly what director Marc Meyers intended; that Jeffrey Dahmer was this twisted presence in an otherwise familiar setting.
The story picks up before Dahmer murdered seventeen men, before he became linked with some truly horrific crimes, before he became a household - here, he's just 'Dumb' Dahmer, played by teen sensation Ross Lynch, a goofy teenager who shuffles through school and avoids bullies by remaining inconspicuous and speaking in monosyllabic grunts whenever he's interrogated. His family life isn't much better, as his parents Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts continuously fight with one another and emotionally and physically neglect both him and his younger brother. Between all this, we see Dahmer's "lab" that's made up of roadkill he's found, placed in chemical vats, which slowly strips away the tissue and leaves only the bones.
What's perhaps so unsettling about My Friend Dahmer is how it treats the character with such sympathy; that we can see just how messed up he was, how his supposed friends - particularly John Backderf, who wrote the graphic novel that acts as the source material for the film - mistreated and exploited him for their own ends, and how it will eventually lead him to his eventual crimes. We're so used to seeing serial killers in the end result, but not as they begin that way. The only other film that's touched on the topic is Lynne Ramsay's excellent We Need To Talk About Kevin, but that had more of an examination of the dynamic between the mother and the son.
Here in My Friend Dahmer, it's played more like a recollection and a memory than a serious investigation of the matter. Ultimately, that proves to be My Friend Dahmer's biggest stumbling block. It's all so passive and slight that it lacks a certain edge. The pacing of the film just drifts along, not unlike something like Lady Bird or any of Richard Linklater's more mellow work, and when the film does take a road into some of the horrors Dahmer is capable of, it feels jarring and out of place with the rest of the film. It's not that a film can't go into dark places or shift in tone, but it's done so rarely and so lightly here that it feels kind of toothless.
While it does benefit from an intriguing performance from Lynch and the dynamic between Roberts, Heche and Lynch has a lived in and authentic charm, it's all just a bit too thin and lacks the weight needed for it to go to the places it can.